The Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Other Minority Institutions (HBCU-OMI) Program—sponsored by the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM) and administered by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL)—invests in developing a U.S. workforce that is diverse and highly skilled in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) through training and education grants. The HBCU-OMI Program is transformative for student researchers who will shape the future of the clean energy sector.

From February through May 2022, FECM is highlighting students currently conducting research in STEM fields through the HBCU-OMI Program. Learn more about one of these students below!

 

Aruna Narayanan Nair

Meet Aruna Narayanan Nair
Graduate Student (Ph.D.) in Chemistry
The University of Texas at El Paso

What made you start pursuing studies in a STEM field and your particular area of specialization?
My generation is extraordinary since we went through many revolutionary technological advancements with significant impact on human progress around the world. I was fortunate to witness the advent of new technologies and concepts from a young age, including the first 2D material graphene,1 which inspired me to be a part of such breakthroughs. I majored in Physics for my undergraduate studies, which provided me with critical insights into the world and processes around me. I actively sought opportunities for different research internships (ranging from theoretical simulation to experimental research) that further catalyzed my interest in pursuing a STEM career. Hence, for my graduate studies (Ph.D.), I decided to apply my fundamental understanding of materials physics and quantum mechanics to advance technologically relevant research areas with significant societal impact. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funding provided me the opportunity and helped me to focus my research on functional quantum materials to solve critical challenges in quantum information processing (QIP).2

What research topics and/or technical areas have you worked on through this HBCU-OMI program?
As a part of the HBCU-OMI program, I synthesized highly conducting graphene nanoribbons (GNRs)3 via oxidative and electrochemical unzipping processes with controllable width and minimal edge roughness. Such GNRs will aid in the development of longer-coherence-time spin qubits4 based on graphene quantum dots (GQDs)5 for quantum information science applications. I was also successful in characterizing the GNRs via several spectroscopic and microscopic techniques, including Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), Raman Spectroscopy, Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR), and more. Realizing ultra-low defect graphene quantum material platforms can be highly beneficial in accomplishing high fidelity qubits for QIP applications.

What aspect of your work through this program are you most proud of?
The pandemic and limited access to different characterization and user facilities around the United States presented a unique challenge. There were stringent travel restrictions also, which inhibited the progress significantly. Thus, I am proud that, despite all the challenges in the past two years, I was able to synthesize high-quality GNRs with minimal edge roughness and control their properties using the oxidative unzipping method. Further, the restricted access also led to some side projects we are about to publish on, where we utilized the GNRs for green production of hydrogen. In short, I am very proud of the way I was able to adapt myself when presented with highly challenging circumstances.

Have you published or are you working on publishing any papers through your work in this program?
Yes, our paper is submitted and is currently under review:

Nair, A. N., Sanad, M. F., Chava, V. S., Sreenivasan, S. T. Platinum-like Hydrogen Evolution Reaction Onset for GNR/MoS2 Heterostructure through curvature-dependent Electron Density Modulation and Enhanced Interfacial Charge Transfer. (under review)

How has your research through the HBCU-OMI program helped you to learn more about your field and career opportunities?
The program helped me learn about the cutting-edge research opportunities at various National Laboratories. The program also equipped me with knowledge and skills of various characterization techniques, which will help me secure a position within an industrial/research organization in the field of semiconductor manufacturing/quantum science. I was also able to participate in different conferences (mostly virtual), which helped me to understand potential job opportunities in quantum science and also identify various opportunities suitable for me. The exposure helped me to understand the options in diverse fields, including academia, industry, and national labs.

How do you feel your research helps to contribute to a sustainable, low-carbon energy future?
Our project aims to fabricate graphene quantum dot-based spin qubits with longer spin relaxation times for enhancing cybersecurity for fossil fuel energy infrastructure. My research also helps in synthesizing graphene-based electrocatalysts with superior activity towards hydrogen evolution reaction (HER)6 for future energy supply. Hence, through the program, I created new avenues for sustainable green energy generation and also helped protect our energy infrastructure from cyber-attacks.

 

To learn more about the HBCU-OMI Program, read our introductory blog post for this student spotlight series or visit NETL’s University Training and Research page.

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1 Graphene is a specific carbon structure consisting of a single layer of atoms in a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice nanostructure.
2 Quantum information processing (QIP) is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to understand the analysis, processing, and transmission of information using quantum mechanics principles. It combines the study of information science with quantum effects in physics.
3 Graphene nanoribbons (GNRs) are strips of graphene less than 100 nanometers in width (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter). GNRs are highly promising materials for nanoelectronics, requiring various treatments to convert them from low to high conductivity.
4 A qubit, or quantum bit, is the basic unit of quantum information, the quantum version of the binary bit used in classical computing. A qubit is a two-state (or two-level) quantum-mechanical system, one of the simplest quantum systems displaying the peculiarity of quantum mechanics.
Quantum computers using spin qubits are based on controlling the charge carriers in semiconductor devices. Spin qubits are compatible with scalable quantum-device engineering and are thus promising resources, but extending their coherence times is an ongoing challenge in this field.
5 Graphene quantum dots (GQDs) are graphene nanoparticles less than 100 nanometers in size which have potential applications in biological, opto-electronics, energy, and environmental fields due to properties such as low toxicity, stable photoluminescence, and chemical stability.
6 Hydrogen evolution reaction (HER) is the production of hydrogen through water electrolysis, or the use of electricity to decompose water into oxygen and hydrogen.